Now reading Half-Shell Heroes

Half-Shell Heroes

All about eight kinds of clams.

This story comes from Lucky Peach #12: The Seashore Issue. For more great stuff like this, subscribe to the magazine!

Blood ark clams
Anadara ovalis


Blood ark clams are covered with damp, dark fuzz not unlike the bristled carpet floor on a Greyhound bus that’s just done its third New York–Boston circuit of the day. They have a thick shell with a deeply recessed, compact cup like that of a Kumamoto oyster, but are ridged like cockles, with undulations that raise into sharpish “teeth” around the shell edges.

Blood ark clams get their vampiric name because of the surpluses of myoglobin and hemoglobin dissolved in their tissues. All clams bleed when they’re shucked, but these suckers bleed mammal blood–colored blood that flows like a sanguine river, unlike most other sea beasts, which pump clear.

In places like Shanghai, they are a delicacy (though illegal). Elsewhere they appear on random online listicles about the world’s grossest foods. Change is coming: a decades-old ban on Mexican clams was lifted in California this spring, and there’s now a resurgence in Mexican and Central American seafood restaurants of blood ark clams and their larger, as-bloody cockle cousin Anadara granosa, which also stalks the West Coast. Shucking tip: use an oyster knife, not a clam knife, and go in through the hinge.

Surf (aka sea) clams
Spisula solidissima

spot--surfThese clams are usually found farther out, hunkered down in soft sand that runs along the continental shelf, but their big shells are brought to the shore by storms. Fishermen crack them apart with hammers and use the meat as bait; tourists salvage their tide-worn shells for ashtrays. Commercially, the dark beige foot is used for long squiggly clam strips of the Howard Johnson’s variety, while the body is ground up to use in chowders or clam pie. The surf clam’s pencil eraser–shaped adductor muscles and rough chopped meat were drained from cans throughout the seventies and mixed with sour cream, as clam dip fever overtook American dinner parties. Surf clams are now a boutique comeback ingredient with chefs who have discovered the smaller, better-eating ones. Bob Doxsee, an octogenerian East Coast clamming legend who closed the family surf clam business after Hurricane Sandy, says that these nicer surf clams were formerly diverted to the sushi market.

Dredging the ocean bottom for these suckers can pose surprising hazards, though, including unintentionally digging up discarded munitions. In 2010, a boat crew forty-five miles off the Long Island coast unloaded a mix of clams and ammunition onto their deck, including a shell casing that leaked a “black liquid substance” that burned a Russian sailor who tried to throw it back overboard.

Bean (aka coquina) clams
Donax variabilis

spot--beanThese wedge-shaped clams are found in tidal areas all over the world, a dime a dozen to the nth degree. There are more than four dozen species of genus Donax, which can be as small as a pinkie nail and weigh 200-to-a-pound. They have gleaming pink or coral or spaceship blue–colored shells, just like the beads you see anchoring fake bamboo in the bottom of glass jars in the weird gift store at the mall.

On the shore, receding waves thin the sand and expose the beans, which will often wiggle their asymmetrical shell bodies in unison on the beach. They sometimes burrow in mysterious, mass-synchronized dives. They tend to be quick but are not long-distance diggers, something that makes them easy to harvest. No one really eats them, though; the bellies are too sandy and too small.

“They produce really superior sweet nectar,” says P.J. Stoops, a fishmonger and chef who’s been selling bycatch to Houston restaurants since 2007. The move is to steam the clams, then strain and filter the thick, concentrated liquid, which is cloudy, cream- or pale-green-colored, and has a platonically clammy flavor. The liquor is then outsourced to risottos and pasta dishes.

Mahogany (aka black, aka ocean quahog) clams
Arctica islandica

spot-mahoganyThe first thing they tell you about Arctica islandica is that it can live for hundreds of years, so eating one poses something of an existential problem: the mollusk you’re about to chowderize already had its hard shell when Halley’s Comet made its last perihelion. Hasn’t it earned clemency?

In 2006, Bangor University researchers off the northern Icelandic coast ascertained one mahogany with a particularly dense array of growth rings to be 405 years old. Later tests revealed the actual age to be 507 years. The scientists named it Ming, after the Chinese dynasty during which the clam was born. Ming earned online fame as the oldest animal ever recorded: the world’s first celebrity clam.

Choosy clams prefer the fine sand at twenty-five to sixty-one meters underground. On the bottom of the ocean, this clam goes decades without doing much and has untold secrets of marine climate change notched into its shell. But closer to shore, ocean quahogs can be found at depths as shallow as eight meters. Mahoganies are essentially power-washed out of the sand with water jets or dry-dredged before being transferred to tanks that filter out the grit. Younger clams are delicious broiled with butter and are ideal for linguine and clams, where their profound flavors sing.

Cherrystones, Topnecks, and Littlenecks
Mercenaria mercenaria

spot--cherrystone-littleneck-topneckThere is no short supply of these entry-level raw bar specimens—the different names account for their different sizes, but they’re all the same clam. The Ballard Fish & Oyster Company on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, for example, can produce 100 million farmed littlenecks a year. But a more illustrative story about these clams and their profusion can be found in the annals of the Great South Bay of Long Island.

In the fifties, the oyster industry on the Great South Bay collapsed. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientist John Ryther posited that runoff from more than forty nearby duck farms was to blame for the algal blooms that choked out the oysters. Oysters, delicate flowers that they are, can’t budge to escape predators like drills and literal shitstorms. Clams can. So littleneck populations adapted, and the industry took off.

In the sixties and early seventies, you could find pickup trucks weighted down with gear outside any diner on Montauk Highway at half-past four any morning. Even on the coldest days, clammers would go out “tonging” the flats of the Great South Bay, plunging sixteen-foot-long poles attached at a pivot like jumbo scissors into the water, easing metal rakes into the bottomlands, clawing littlenecks up through the mud, and dropping them into water buckets. The Great South Bay produced nearly 50 percent of the hard clams consumed in the United States in the seventies.

Overharvesting and environmental factors collapsed the industry after those halcyon days. But clamming has begun to pick up again along the East End. “There’s nothing like a Long Island clam, man,” says Dave Pasternack of Barchetta in New York City. He says the hallmark of a good topneck is a particularly hard shell and shucked meat that is darker than most other varieties. “The clam is definitely sweeter,” he says. “It’s best starting in the spring when there’s no spawn, so you’ll see there’s a lot of meat when you open the shell. Even the little ones.”

Quahogs (aka chowder) clams
Mercenaria mercenaria and Mercenaria campechiensis

spot--quahogOld chowder clams are like the stoic, ancient bodybuilders who haunt Venice Beach, trudge the sand, and break up the day with graceful three-minute flights on the parallel bars. They prefer to stick to the same patch of benthic mud, filter-feeding algae through their protruding, well-toned siphons as necessary, or perhaps just when they feel like showing off.

Chowders are the same species as littleneck and cherrystone clams, but measure four inches across, the size they reach around twenty years old, once they’ve grown a thick, ridged shell. Chowder clam meat has less briny and more mineral tang, with high glutamate levels that develop as buttery and meaty flavors when dispatched into soup.

Razor clams
Siliqua patula and Ensis directus

spot-razorThough razor clams have been served for centuries in Asia, it wasn’t until chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin started serving razors in the 1980s that anyone in the United States thought to eat them. These days, because of catch limits, razor clamming represents one arena where dilettantes and hobbyists outnumber professionals.

The clams are named for their shells’ resemblance to straight razors of yore. Freed from the shell, the meat is like a long, compact fillet. It lends itself to the grill; acid-cooking into ceviche; chowders; or pounded flat with a little care, crumbed, and fried as scaloppine.

Though they share sharp names and similar dispositions, Pacific Coast (Siliqua patula) and East Coast razors (Ensis directus) aren’t actually related. Pacific razors are fatter, like a cross between a geoduck and a steamer. They can be caught with clam “guns”: low-tech PVC or steel tubes jackhammered into the sand anywhere a tell-tale clam dimple forms on the beach at low tide. One works the tube down about ten inches, then covers the gun’s air vent with one’s thumb, forming a vacuum that uproots the clam in a column of wet mud before it can dig an escape route.

Mya arenaria

spot--steamerDepending on where you are, these bivalves are known as steamers or mud clams or Ipswich clams or belly clams or piss clams or longneck clams. They are all the same species. The difference worth noting is where the steamers you’re eating are from: the clams spend the majority of their lives burrowed in tidal mudflats, filtering nutrient-rich mud that imbues them with a distinct flavor, much the way oysters taste different from cove to cove and ocean to ocean.

Brown bears have been known to stalk steamer clams on the Katmai Coast beaches in southern Alaska, which have a different character than the ones dug in Casco Bay or Beals Island, Maine. They are never eaten raw by humans on account of the thick layers of skin that bunch up like a gritty turtleneck around their dual siphons; instead they must be shucked and peeled. This is accomplished by dunking the clams in scalding water, then dipping them in an ice bath. In Ipswich, the steamer’s most famous point of origin, this job is done by some of the few remaining soft-shell clam shuckers in the world—mostly Hispanic and Cambodian women. Mud-bellied Ipswich clams are the ones that Lawrence “Chubby” Woodman used to make the first fried bellies sold at Woodman’s of Essex, in Massachusetts in 1916, and the ones which Edna Lewis was told had been served “in fifty different ways” at Gage and Tollner in Brooklyn when she took over as chef in 1988. (She pared the section down to sixteen soft-shell clam dishes.)

Steamers often account for most of the shells in Long Island’s early middens (piled up between the years 1100 and 1250 CE). They are slow burrowers but can dig deeper than other clams and often cheerfully spend their adult lives in one spot. Sadly, once the older and fatter ones have been uprooted, they cannot put themselves back in place. Just like our most canonized rock stars, steamer clams typically do not live longer than twenty-eight years, and generally do their best work (eating flagellates and diatoms) early on.